Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. New York Review Books 2004. (Originally published in 1960). Paperback. $14.00.
"How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters," says the narrator at the beginning of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontës Went to Woolworths. But I think even she would have loved Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels. To clarify: it's not a novel, it's a wonderfully witty and engaging memoir that reads like a novel. It is about a lot of sisters. Jessica (known as Decca) was the fifth of six Mitford sisters, the daughters of Lord Redesdale, who grew up in dull and drafty Swinbrook House in the Cotswolds. The sisters are all "Hons" ("the Honorable Jessica Mitford"), but most of them manage, in some way, to rebel against the dull and often stifling atmosphere of their childhood. Jessica becomes a Communist, and as a girl spends dull afternoons scratching hammers and sickles into the window panes. Her older sister, eccentrically and prophetically named Unity Valkyrie, scratches Nazi swastikas into the glass.
Unity is Decca's favorite sister: tall and earnest and magnificently sullen as a teenager, she becomes Decca's beloved adversary in the ideological turf wars of the drawing room. A line is drawn down the center of the room: Decca's half is communist territory, Unity's is fascist. This is the mid-1930s, and Hitler has come to power in Germany, and Unity is smitten. Eventually she travels to Germany and, in part on the strength of her Aryan looks, manages to become part of Hitler's inner circle. As Europe moves closer to war, the sisters' drawing room standoffs become tragically real.
Under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, it's uncertain whether England will ally with the Nazis against the Communists, or vice versa. In this atmosphere of dispirited uncertainty, Decca escapes to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, to join the resistance against Franco. The first half of the memoir is a wonderful social comedy about "a lot of sisters" in an English country house; the second half is a wonderful kind of picaresque romantic comedy about the adventures and misadventures of Decca and Esmond in Europe and America.
Hons and Rebels is laugh-out-loud, read-out-loud funny, filled with an enormous zest for life even in the midst of personal tragedy and cataclysmic world historical events. Esmond Romilly is a magnetic character who steals the girl and the show; Decca's enormous love and admiration for him, and her perplexed and regretful love for her sister Unity, give this memoir heart and soul to go with all the laughter.
Pictured on the book cover: Unity and Jessica Mitford, ages 8 and 4.
Currently reading: Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
On the top of the TBR pile: Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution & Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
Waiting for me at the bookstore: Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine
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